[OUTLOOK]What we learned by candlelightThe candlelight rallies last fall led us to experience a lot of things. The rallies made us examine in earnest the issue of U.S. troops in Korea, and with the breakout of war in Iraq, the rallies shook up our entire society with vibrant controversy over the theme of war and peace. Now the war in Iraq has ended in victory for the United States, and the government has determined that not a word be spoken about any changes in the U.S. presence in the Korean Peninsula until North Korea’s nuclear program is dealt with.
Now it is the United States that wants to reposition its troops, and our side is in the position of pleading with them to stay. Therefore, candlelight rallies against the U.S. presence have only weakened our position. The anti-war demonstrations resulted in disappointment for the participants after the government, which they believed to be of the same persuasion, decided to dispatch Korean troops to Iraq after all. And now, the war has ended in an easy one-sided victory for the United States.
What did those passionate rallies ultimately achieve? A progressive newspaper printed an interview with a student who participated in them. Looking at the U.S. victory, the student said, “I even thought what was the use of all this anti-war demonstrating if the logic of power was going to prevail after all.”
Similar to the candlelight protesters, the new president had demanded a more equal relationship with the United States and offered to play middleman to negotiations between Washington and Pyeongyang. Seoul, however, was not invited to the three-party talks in Beijing over North Korea’s nuclear program. This leaves Seoul in a very awkward position. Also, with the repositioning of U.S. troops, South Koreans would have to spend an enormous additional amount on national defense. Despite the candlelight protests, nothing has changed. In fact, the situation has gotten worse. How can we explain this? What lessons did we learn from it?
First, the rallies were focused only on the ideal, ignoring the reality. The death of the two middle-school girls was a terrible tragedy from anyone’s point of view. Yet what came out of this tragedy differs according to whether one focuses on the reality or on the ideal. Whether it is a good choice or a bad one depends on the actual solution to the problem. Emphasizing reality does not really give one much ground to work on. Ideals, on the other hand, are the sources of justification and moral strength. The candlelight rallies were held in support of humanitarian principles and out of a sense of patriotism, two sacred things that people are not likely to object to. The same held for the anti-war demonstrations. Who could possibly stop a crowd from expressing its love for peace?
Apart from the passion of idealism, however, the power and the logic of reality were working separately. The logic of reality transcends what is right and what is wrong. Regardless of the anti-war protests, the overwhelming might of the superpower, the United States, won the war. The reality is that even President Jacques Chirac of France, who had actively opposed the war before it began, called President Bush to congratulate him on the quick victory.
Reality is the reason that President Roh changed his initial stance on the U.S. troops in Korea and on the dispatch of noncombat Korean troops to Iraq. Good intentions alone do not solve problems. In fact, they sometimes simply complicate things further and make them worse.
Second, the candlelight rallies showed that there are some things that can be solved by rallies and some that cannot. There are issues that need public participation and there are issues that should be left for the experts to deal with, because they have the information and the expertise. With some issues, the judgment of a ruling elite can be better than the collective judgment of the crowd. This is the tension between elitism and populism.
Even in a democracy of public participation, there are certain fields where elitism works better for the general interests of the people. Foreign affairs and security policies are two such fields. Whereas we could solve our domestic problems by ourselves in whatever way possible, international relations among countries with different levels of power and wealth must work separately from our logic or wishes. Something like an anti-dictatorship struggle needs active public participation, but in other things public participation should be restrained.
It is human nature to pursue things that are simple and clear as the ideal, instead of trying to understand complex and sometimes even murky reality. There are occasions in which we will gain from holding candles, as is dictated by the ideal. And there are occasions that dictate that we control our passion, although we are tempted to light candles.
This is the real lesson that the candlelight rallies have taught us all.
* The writer is chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Moon Chang-keuk